Australia needs water in the bank

craig simmons
Professor Craig Simmons

A group of the nation’s leading water scientists are urging the Federal Government to accelerate underground water storage across Australia following reports that a strong El Nino is building up, raising the risks of major drought.

The call for a national underground ‘water bank’ will be made at the Australian Groundwater Conference which is being held in Canberra next week, from November 3-5, 2015.

The conference chair, Professor Craig Simmons, a Flinders University hydrologist and director of the National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT), says groundwater makes up over 90 per cent of Australia’s fresh water supplies.

“It is far more important than we think – but it is often poorly understood and valued. The recent Commonwealth Water Infrastructure Options Paper proposes new dams in Australia – yet all but ignores groundwater,” Professor Simmons said.

With over 300 groundwater scientists, policy makers and managers in attendance, the Groundwater conference will focus on a range of serious issues affecting the nation’s largest resource, its subsurface water:

  • Developing a plan for nationwide underground banking of water in managed aquifers
  • Ways to return over-allocated groundwater to sustainable levels of extraction
  • The impact of fracking, coal mining and gas extraction on Australia’s groundwater reserves
  • The role of water banking for preventing water shortages in Australia’s cities
  • The role of groundwater in a successful Murray-Darling Basin plan
  • The role of groundwater in the future development of Northern Australia
  • How to licence, meter and charge for groundwater extraction
  • The threat from widespread illegal use of bore water
  • The need to replace and repair old groundwater infrastructure, now almost half a century old and nearing the end of its useful life
  • The urgency of measuring and monitoring Australia’s national groundwater resource.

“NASA, the Bureau of Meteorology and other organisations are warning that the strengthening El Niño will bring drier, warmer weather to Australia, potentially expanding drought-affected areas,” Professor Simmons says.

“Yet Australia’s National Groundwater Action Plan ended three years ago.

“This is an early warning to Australians to do all we can to increase storage of water for dry times to come – and the best place to store water is underground, where evaporation is almost nil, construction costs low and environmental impact minimal.”

The Co-Chair of the International Association of Hydrogeologists Managed Aquifer Recharge Commission, Dr Peter Dillon, will present a paper outlining the uneven adoption of underground water banking across Australia, with some states leading but others lagging.

NCGRT’s Dr Margaret Shanafield will present the latest scientific findings about the risks to groundwater from ‘fracking’, while Dr David Post of CSIRO will present new information on the impact of coal mining and coal-seam gas extraction on groundwater in six of Australia’s most important bioregions.

The University of Queensland’s Dr Kelly Fielding will explain how public ‘literacy’ in water issues lies at the heart of Australia’s willingness to adopt sensible strategies for water management and conservation. Agencies seeking to bring in major changes in water use need to understand more about public attitudes, and take the public with them, she says.

“Groundwater provides more than 30 per cent of Australia’s total water consumption and generates national economic activity worth in excess of $34 billion a year across agriculture, mining and industry. Potentially, it is worth a lot more than this, as it will underpin our growth as a nation and an industrial economy far into the future if we manage it wisely,” Professor Simmons says.

“There are many ways – such as water banking, conjunctive management of surface and groundwater, monitoring, having a national plan and forum – that we can look after our national water resources far better, ensure there is enough for all uses in the future and minimise likely risks.

“But we need to refocus on water again, especially with the build-up of another major El Nino cycle. Frankly, water has been a low priority topic in Australia since the end of the Millennium drought, and it is high time we put it at the head of the national agenda once more. Especially groundwater, which is our greatest national resource.

“It is time to end the “hydro-illogical cycle” in Australia – apathy, drought, awareness, concern, panic, rain, apathy, drought…

“We need to earn the right to call ourselves true Australians by managing our water in ways decreed by the continent itself.”

The Australian Groundwater Conference is being held in the Shine Dome, Canberra, from November 3-5. The program can be found here.


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